Poetic Injustice: A Gravedigga Fights for Life

The Critical Condition of Health Coverage in the Music Industry

Despite organizations like the Manhattan-based Rap Coalition pushing industries (music and otherwise) to provide coverage for independent contractors, most health care advocates doubt big business will ever do much to help.

"I don't think we'll ever see the day when record companies insure artists," says Klabin. "It's too expensive, there are too many risks, and because of the nature of the short-lived relationship between the label and musicians, in reality it's not their concern."

Whose concern is it? Some artists count on lawyers or managers to negotiate health coverage with labels. But Mark D. Persaud, a former A&R man for RCA and ex-president of Quest Records, doubts that most lawyers and managers push this type of negotiation.

"Your life is your responsibility," Persaud explains. "Just because you hire an attorney, you can't expect him to be responsible for your whole life. He was hired to negotiate your contract with the label. If he's superbright and goes above and beyond the call of duty, he can [secure health coverage]. But ultimately, it falls on the artist's shoulders."

Moreover, if labels were to provide coverage, industry insiders say that artists might not even want it. "If I said to an artist, 'I'm taking $200 a month to provide for your medical and dental care,' the artist would say, 'Hell, no! Give me the money!' as would most company employees," comments Neil Robertson, an A&R man at V2 Records, Gee Street's parent label.

Perhaps the nature of recording artists' careers makes securing health care their own responsibility. "Health care is for the individual to get," Persaud says. "The analogy is that, as an independent contractor, an artist has decided to build their own company. And in so doing, they're a business in and of themselves. Like you'd build your business by investing in computer systems, telephone systems, and so on, you have to find the right insurance. That's what you need to do to build your career."

Leslie Arnette-Pina, comanager of New York-based Motive/MCA Records artist Jaguar, echoes Persaud. "I used to work at a small public relations firm, and it took years for us to get health care," she says, "so I can't be mad at a label for not offering it to artists."

Other sectors of the entertainment industry share insurance woes. The Actors' Fund of America is working with the National Endowment for the Arts on what it considers the most important component in the fight—promoting health insurance awareness. The Internet-based Artists' Health Insurance Resource Center provides health-care-policy data for each state, as well as membership information on organizations providing coverage.

"Our primary reason for existence is to make sure that people don't fall through the cracks," says Sara Meehan, the Actors' Fund's publicity director. Through its easy-to-read glossary of health terms and user-friendly Web site, AHIRC aims to take some of the mystery and intimidation out of health care.

Some think, however, that urban media outlets could do more to raise awareness. "They don't talk about it in so-called hip-hop or r&b magazines, like Vibe or The Source," complains Arnette-Pina. "They don't have any articles on health care and hip-hop. Neither do industry magazines like Billboard or Impact."

And although Sweet Relief says it's trying to target the rap and hip-hop sector, it hasn't had much luck in the past. "That's one genre we haven't been able to crack," Klabin says.

Sweet Relief, easily the best-known agency dealing with health care in the music industry, has had tremendous success penetrating the alternative, rock, and country music industries. Perhaps the most visible musician whose illness has garnered headlines is singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. After a 1992 multiple sclerosis diagnosis, she was in the same situation as Poetic: without insurance and, consequently, without access to even basic care.

After friends and fans organized concerts and albums raising thousands of dollars in support of her treatments, Williams founded Sweet Relief in 1994. In 1996, Sweet Relief, with Sony Records, released Gravity of the Situation, featuring the music of folksinger Vic Chesnutt, who was left paraplegic by a car accident as a teenager.

Since its start, Sweet Relief has donated more than $350,000 to needy artists. Besides providing funds for medical expenses, alternative therapies, prescriptions, and sometimes living expenses, the organization is launching preventative programs, beginning with one concentrating on hepatitis C. And like AHIRC, Sweet Relief directs musicians to health care resources.

"There are a lot of resources available for someone like Poetic," says Klabin. "That's exactly what we're here for, not just to give away money, but to direct people to resources that could help them. That's every bit as important as giving away money."

Poetic has never heard of Sweet Relief, but as his illness wore on, the Jersey-based public relations firm Meridian Entertainment came to his aid. Yet Meridian's efforts yielded little success. According to Meridian CEO Lisa Patterson, some of the organizations she contacted responded with a don't-call-us-we'll-call-you reticence. Still others seemed to be only for"upper-echelon artists," says Patterson. So Meridian created the Life Goes On Foundation to give Poetic the help he needed.

"After talking to tons of people, we started Life Goes On to give housing, transportation, and basically put food on the table," says Patterson of the foundation's origins. "Basically, we want to support artists who can't support themselves."

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